Working with Kander and Ebb, Scott Ellis, and David Thompson early in my career was a gift. All of these collaborators loved dance – and Steel Pier was full of dance from beginning to end.
Our story took place in 1933 on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City when ballroom dancing was at its most popular. Creating a story about a dance marathon during the Great Depression and the Steel Pier made great material for a new musical.
The Steel Pier in Atlantic City was called the “Showplace of the Nation”. It featured concerts, rides, sideshows, flagpole sitters, the Diving Bell, a water show, and the famous Diving Horse. The sounds of rides and roaring waves are still fresh in my memory. I remember summer days sitting with my parents on the end of the pier, eating hot dogs and throwing ice cubes at the jellyfish in the water below. Near the end of the Steel Pier sat the Marine Ballroom, a beautiful Art Deco building that could hold 5000 people and played home to countless orchestras, headliners, dancers, and dance contests. The Marine Ballroom was where we placed our dance marathon.
Dance Marathons were popular events during the Great Depression. 1933 was the worst year of the depression, with one out of four Americans unemployed. People would sign up for these marathons hoping to win big money. As the couples danced, crowds in the stands would throw coins at their favorites. Promoters would seek out entertainers with special skills to spice up the show and sell more tickets. Dance marathons were both genuine endurance contests and staged performance events. Some of the contestants would go on to dance their way to fame.
Marathons introduced new songs, new dance styles, and the soap opera-like intensity of an audience rooting for its favorite couple. The flirtations, the intrigue, the passion, the endurance – all made for captivating characters who danced with the hope of surviving the massive economic strain. These people were dancing for their lives.
At the start of each day, my associate Chris Peterson and I would partner up and dance. Chris was an amazing dance partner. We had both studied ballroom dancing and knew how to move as one. We taught the entire company basic ballroom steps — fox trot, waltz, rumba, quick step, Lindy Hop, one step, two step, polka, tango. I wanted them to understand the terminology so that as I was creating the dances, I could call out a particular step and they could transition into it right away.
Animal dances were also very popular during the 1930’s. The dances consisted of the Grizzly Bear, Bunny Hug, Turkey Trot, Moochie, Fish Tail, Monkey Dance, and Snake Hips. Couples would hold each other so close you could barely slip a piece of paper between them. Some contests banned Animal Dances, fearing trouble from religious groups or morality leagues. I taught these dances to our couples, peppering the steps here and there during the big dance moments. I find the more knowledge a cast has about authentic dance styles and dance steps, the more natural the staging will look.
As the actors danced, relationships formed, backstories for the couples and subtext for the principal characters strengthened. You can tell a lot about a couple by how they dance with one another. The strength of their embrace, eye contact, the willingness to support each while fighting exhaustion all reveal their personalities.
At the top of the show, the dancers line up across the back of the stage and come toward the audience in slow motion. Moving through fractured blue and white light, they glide and slink through various styles of dance, undulating like an ocean wave as the sound of seawater plays underneath. Their movement represents how close, physical contact can be so seductive, how it can pull you into a particular situation or moment – including one you might regret later.
In Steel Pier, the marathon is a metaphor for people trapped in a rut – an axis of depression, a relationship or job that is going nowhere. Rita Racine, played magnificently by Karen Ziemba, is trapped in a loveless marriage with Mick (Gregory Harrison). Mick is the sordid Master of Ceremonies. He organizes the contests, rigging them to ensure Rita will be the winner. He promises her each marathon will be her last. Then Rita meets Bill (Daniel McDonald), a daredevil stunt pilot, and they partner up for the next dance.
The opening number “Everybody Dance” is a fantastic, jubilant Kander and Ebb song that set an exciting tone and also introduced the rules: contestants must dance for forty-five minutes every hour, followed by a fifteen-minute break; if they fall, collapse, or stop dancing for any reason, they will be disqualified.
The song also introduced the couples we would follow through the night. Besides Rita and Bill, there were couples like Buddy and Bette (Joel Blum and Valerie Wright) who played a Vaudevillian brother-and-sister dance team. What makes their journey so interesting and heartbreaking is how the marathon contributes to Buddy losing his mind – the twosome never learned how to pace themselves.
Shelby, played by the incomparable Debra Monk, stopped the show every night with the sassy song “Everybody’s Girl”.
Kristen Chenoweth, in her Broadway debut, played Precious. When she sang the song “Two Little Words”, wearing William Ivey Long’s amazing cellophane dress (a fad in the 1930’s), the audience knew they were looking at a star.
The role of Bill (Daniel McDonald) represents a version of the American Dream – believe in your convictions and hold on to your dreams. Daniel was utterly convincing in this part. Bill also believes everyone deserves a second chance at life. He and Rita dance to a song called “Second Chance”, fox trotting the entire time. It’s one thing to do a fox trot, but a fox trot with perfectly timed dialogue is quite another challenge. Daniel and Karen made it look effortless and spontaneous.
Gregory Harrison’s Mick represents the darker impulse of the American Dream – fight and scratch your way to the top, no matter who you have to step over to get there. Mick sings a song called “A Powerful Thing”. When you have power, you can get anyone to do anything you want. Gregory’s performance reminds us just how dangerous a man like that can be.
Pilots were big news during this time – the Lindy Hop is named for Charles Lindbergh – and so there are many references to flying in Steel Pier. In our show, flying symbolizes freedom – so is uninhibited dance. In a dream sequence, Rita imagines she is flying. Our wonderful set designer Tony Walton built a plane on stage, propeller and all. I created a dance with girls tap dancing across the wings while Karen Ziemba skipped, slid, jumped, and glided all over the flying machine. Taking a risk high in the air is like risking everything and dancing towards the future.
One of my favorite numbers is “The Shag”. In it we see the dancers, battling fatigue, move through 1930’s dance called the shag. During the song, gurneys filled with the dancers who could not last would pass by, weaving in and out of the choreography. The orchestrations by Michael Gibson and the dance arrangements by Glen Kelly captured the desperation of these people and the dark side of the marathon.
To me, Steel Pier is the show that got away. It had almost continuous dance music which meant continuous dance. When acting moments were happening downstage, there was still dance upstage. The movement took on a real journey through the show, going from literal to abstract and hypnotic. Dance as history, dance as metaphor, dance as romance.
As Kander and Ebb say in their song “Second Chance”:
SOON THAT CURSE
BUT FIRST YOU'VE GOT TO GET
A SECOND CHANCE.
I think Steel Pier deserves a second chance.
Book by David Thompson
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson
Direction by Scott Ellis
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Tony Walton
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design by Tony Meola
Musical Direction by David Loud